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It’s funny why we recollect things. Grief triggers lots of odd-assorted memories, as I’m now re-discovering (sadly, not for the first time). But it seemed entirely random that Kino and my meeting with Viktor Tsoi were called back to mind after laying dormant for so many years.

Last autumn, as I was shuttling across Wessex to visit my dying father, I discovered the Flaming Lips. In particular, this lyric from Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots stuck in my mind:-

Her name is Yoshimi. She’s a black belt in karate.
Working for the city, she has to discipline her body. Cause she knows that it’s demanding to defeat these
evil machines. I know she can beat them.”

I think it was the concept of working for the state (as, in effect, most Soviet citizens did in 1986) that conjured up memories of Viktor; he was a specialist in martial arts too. He clearly possessed a particular sense of purpose when I met him; yet, despite USSR-wide fame by the time of his death in 1990, he continued with his job as a boiler-worker in a Leningrad apartment building. Check out the documentary footage below for a flavour of that.

For those awaiting more of my Kino pictures, or some more detailed explanation of my acquaintanceship with Russia’s most iconic rock star, I’ll start with the latter. I met him for only a few weeks in one of those weird moments of Russian history when things were thawing and it was both safe and dangerous at the same time. From this vast distance of a couple of decades, it feels a little over-the-top to describe what occurred over those few days as a friendship, but I don’t have a better word for it.

It was April 1986. I was on Easter vacation from history studies at Oxford and had taken advantage of a Russian language course. Just a month earlier, Mikhail Gorbachev had delivered his first glasnost‘ speech to the 27th Congress of the Communist Party. Even though there was some expectation in the air that things were changing, at the centre of the state apparatus was the KGB still, and even for the casual visitor they didn’t appear too far away; one or two of our Soviet friends were arrested late one night for mixing with us.

Some of my fellow-travellers on the course were Russophiles who already knew a group of Leningrad beatniks from previous visits. This group included Tsoi, members of his band (Kino), and other artists and players in the Leningrad underground. I was privileged to meet and hang out with some of the most talented and experimental members of that society, without any of the mental impediments that proximity to fame and celebrity might normally entail. These were people of my age and a little older who would go on to play significant roles in the epoch-making changes affecting Soviet society. And it was transformational for me too.

Looking back, I guess I was a bit naive. Falling in with the underground had never been my intention. It was altogether accidental. But this is the age when you do go adventuring. For someone who was generally abstemious in matters alcoholic I shared a fair few bottles of vodka and papirosi with my friend, the wood sculptor, Roman.

To add to the poignancy and memory-forging qualities of the time, a few days after I returned from the USSR, Chernobyl went up, stranding some of my fellow students under a radioactive cloud in Kiev. This will, I’m sure, come as no surprise to anyone who’s been following my penchant for black swan near-misses.

Tsoi’s inexorable rise as the leading rock musician of glasnost’ Russia culminated in an acting career and major Soviet fame, with the distinct promise of it breaking the boundaries of the USSR. But then, returning from Latvia after a recording session, he died in a car accident. Such was Tsoi’s impact on desperate Soviet youth that (as previously noted) there were 65 suicides reportedly tied to his own tragic departure.

I did not spend a vast amount of time with Tsoi himself; after all, he had a day job. But he did play guitar at our leaving party (more of that another time). He was clearly a most charismatic presence. He was only a couple of years older than I, the same age as my brother. His emerging fame was of a subterranean type that could not really be meaningful to me – a non-Russian. He was clearly recognized, but not mobbed in the way a western star might be; it was probably still too dangerous for that. Although spreading music through magnitizdat (self-published and copied) tapes was probably easier than samizdat books, public appearances were relatively few. And expressions of independent pop culture were only permitted, I guess, as some kind of safety valve for the most restless of Soviet youth.

I had never heard of Kino when we met, let alone listened to their music. Viktor was a young musician trying to pursue his art and keep out of trouble as much as possible. He’d recently married, and was now a father. He was dignified, self-contained, mature, noble. He had a brotherly way toward me and those around him. Compared with later images — which are so much more readily available on the internet — the pictures I have show a more private, relaxed, and ironically freer young man. While his struggle was to escape the shackles of an all-powerful state, it’s clear that fame brought its own pressures and new risks.

My own risk-taking by comparison was slight. It’s true that I ended up taking a trip outside Leningrad city limits without a visa for a spring visit to Roman’s parents’ dacha — and one of the most generous meals I’ve probably ever eaten. We were quite a spectacle to the other passengers on the tram ride out there, and we were nervous of being stopped. And then, more dangerously still, I attended an artist’s garret where, quite naturally, illegal substances were consumed. It’s ironic that the only time in my student days that I came anywhere near anything illicit, I was with personae non gratae inside a police state.

Coming away from the Soviet Union, I’m not sure what the full cost to me was, aside from the already-mentioned loss of one Fender Telecaster (blonde, white scratch plate). It reshaped what I wanted to do in life, but it’s also possible that it may have meant the closure of some avenues. I was told by someone who could reasonably have access to the information that my name had ended up on some Foreign Office black-list. It’s a romantic notion which I find laughable. But these were stupid times, and mixing up the good guys and the bad guys was perhaps the best strategy for those whose stock-in-trade was paranoia and conspiracy.

Anyway, it is now several months and two bereavements since I woke up to the fact that I had a whole bunch of not-too-bad photos of Tsoi and friends gathering dust in the basement. It has taken longer than expected, and I’m hopeful that together (Dear Reader) we can make these photos a bit more of an event than the blogging of a few tourist snaps. Something is gnawing at me saying that Tsoi should be a cult figure in the West too. If 12 million Brits can watch a bunch of no-brain celebrities dance the cha-cha-cha on a Saturday evening, a good number of global ears and eyeballs should really learn about this Russian icon, even if the language is beyond all but 280 million of us.

Well, here is Viktor going about his daily business tending a boiler. Some concert footage of the song ‘Spakoynaya Noch’ (Peaceful Night) and a little bit of post-concert footage is also included. At least, in those days, they fully enjoyed their freedom to smoke!

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Kino’s Viktor Tsoi

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